When scoring a game, my creative process usually begins with having a basic understanding of the style of music I’m aiming for, setting up a click track, pressing Record, and improvising until I hit upon something that works. That initial track usually provides the rhythmic foundation that kicks off the song, and then I’ll improvise additional parts over it. I’ll try to keep as many of those improvised takes as possible, rather than rerecording them, because there’s a better chance of playing something with the right feel the first time around.
Sometimes I’ll be given a temp track— which is an existing piece of music that served as a guideline during the game’s development process—which will give me a good idea of what the audio director is looking for. Also, while typically I’m just given an idea of what the game play is going to be like in a particular section, there is now a trend to compose to picture—just like you would for film.
Guitar music isn’t all that common in gaming, and so being pigeonholed as “the guitarist game-scoring guy” has worked to my advantage. Of course, versatility is still key, and my formal music training has been a huge help—particularly music theory as it relates to analyzing music I’m unfamiliar with, because I’ve been able to dive into a lot of different styles and quickly get a basic grasp of how they are structured.
I’m mostly playing an old Gibson ES- 125TCD and Yamaha AES420, but much of my earlier stuff was done with a Fender American Strat and a Roland VG-8 V-Guitar System, which I used to emulate other instruments. I’m currently playing through a Reason Bambino amp and some pedals, but I also go direct through software such as Native Instruments Guitar Rig and IK Multimedia AmpliTube. Lap-steel, Dobro, oud, and ukulele are also part of my arsenal.
I got into games by responding to a classified ad placed by Electronic Arts requesting a composer with guitar skills, but that was a fluke. My advice to musicians trying to get into scoring games is to make sure your demo has the highest audio production quality you are capable of. And, while having a demo that jumps between lots of styles may demonstrate your versatility, I advise you to zone in on the particular musical needs of the audio director you are targeting—which means doing your homework first.
Matt Ragan studied at the USC School of Music, with an emphasis on orchestral and electronic music, as well as guitar. In 1997, he landed a gig as a staff composer with Electronic Arts, scoring a hit with his first game, Need For Speed III: Hot Pursuit. Since then, he has composed music for many more games, as well as for television programs in the U.S. and abroad. —Barry Cleveland